Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What is "The State of Nature" ?

 Are we, in fact, uniquely separate from the other animals? Common sense, religion and mythology all  say that we are, but  modern biology and  evolutionary psychology beg to differ.  According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, we too, must have evolved by natural selection, which means, it seems, that the differences between humans and their closest ancestors are only a matter of degree.  

Trouble is, our closest ancestors are not with us anymore.  We only know of them because archaeologists have uncovered their bones in Africa, Asia, and Europe.  We have to go back six million years ago, to the time when our ancestors left the  African forest and split from the common descendant to find modern living examples, chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest living animal relatives

Modern human DNA is ninety-eight percent the same as chimps and we are separated by six million years of evolution.  In that time, We started to walk upright, we invented stone knives, our bodies became taller and more gracile, we lost most of our body hair, our sexual habits changed, we were able to make and control fire, to cook food, and we developed language.  More was to come.  

Humans live in groups, like apes, we collectively defend the group like apes, and we have dominance hierarchies, like apes.  But our groups are much bigger, our dominance hierarchies are far more complex, rule governed, and less violent, we have accumulated knowledge about building and using tools and they have not, we have  moral systems and they have not, we have language and they do not, we have pair-bonding and monogamy and they mostly do not, and we have kinship systems and extended bonds of fatherhood and they do not.  

Most uneducated, or those with no more than a high-school education will have no trouble seeing a qualitative difference between humans and animals.  The trouble begins when you receive a University education.  Because we know we evolved from the apes, we then assume that evolution occurred gradually, and could not have led to any large qualitative changes in such a short amount of time.

In other words,  if one accepts the theory of evolution, it appears that we couldn’t have left the state of nature behind.  Are we then, in fact, still in it?  Of course, it can also depend on how you define “nature” and the “state of nature”.  So let’s look at “the state of nature”.   What exactly does this concept mean?  The answer depends mostly on which philosopher is using it.  

The first modern philosopher to use it was the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).  Hobbes lived during the English Civil War and he saw the social upheavals and destruction it caused first hand.  He was anxious for his homeland to avoid these calamities in the future so he sought, in his philosophy, to establish a rock solid foundation for  a political system that he thought would guarantee peace, order and good government. These wars were between different religious groups: Protestants and Catholics. It was assumed in Hobbes time, that if there wasn't one unified religious body over all states then the only feasible alternative was for each state to be identified with a single religion. This suggested the necessity of a single head. A monarch who determined the religious system as well as the government.

In order to advance his justification for absolute monarchy, Hobbes introduced the idea of the state of nature.  What would it be like before humans had governments?, asked Hobbes.  His answer looks a lot like what happens during a civil war.   He thinks our lives  would have been “nasty brutish, and short”  and it would basically degenerate into a war of all against all.  Sure people could make agreements, but what was to guarantee that those agreements would be honoured or enforced?  As Hobbes said, in his book Leviathan, "Covenents without the sword are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all."

Note, that Hobbes does not  have a very accurate picture of nature. Pre-Darwin, it was thought that humans were a special creation of God's. So the Hobbsian state of nature is not animal precursors to human, but humans in a natural state, where life is apparently, "nasty, brutish, and short." But he does pick up on the fact that agreements that are not backed by the real possibility of enforcement, are not sustainable.  This is the key idea.  

Later English and Continental Philosophers:  Locke, Rousseau, and Kant - will use the idea of the state of nature and covenants to form their own moral theories.  And then in the twentieth Century, the American philosopher John Rawls, will bring back Hobbes’s ideas of the state of nature and the social contract to form a new justification of  the modern welfare state, but he will do it in a much more abstract hypothetical form.

The English philosopher John Locke, (1632-1704)   who seems pretty excited about how humans can better themselves by their own labour, a system of property rights, and a market economy , is the inspiration for Thomas Jefferson's opening words for the U.S. Declaration of Independence:  “ We hold these truths to be self-evident:  That all men are created equal.”

According to Locke, in the state of nature everyone is equal, and there is morality and human rights, but these moral rights cannot be operationalized without a government and legal system to protect life, liberty, and property, hence the form and content of the U.S. Constitution and the absence of the word “slave”.  

Rousseau ( 1712-1778), a French philosopher who famously or infamously, inspired the French Revolution was inspired himself by tales of North-American Indians.  His idea of the state of nature was where humans were free, mostly solitary, with limited wants, and minimal social strife.  Not a bad place to be actually.  In fact it seemed to Rousseau  to be preferable to European society with it’s gross inequality and hypocrisy.  

John Rawls (1921-2002), in probably the most famous work of twentieth century philosophy:   A Theory of Justice, uses the state of nature, purely as an abstract hypothetical device to illustrate what moral and political system people would likely agree to,  if they were ignorant of their own position in social and economic hierarchies.  That state of nature is really just a state of ignorance, a device for smoothing the way towards political agreement.  

OK, I get the idea here.  The state of nature is a state of simplicity.  Everyone is equal.  There are no differences in status, no accumulation of wealth, no difference in political power.  Some say it would be bad, some say it would be good, and some say it never really existed, it’s just an idea.  

Well, it obviously existed, but we don’t really know what was happening at the point when humans became humans, because there are no eye- witness reports from two million years ago.  Neither writing nor language existed at this time, so all we have as evidence is stones and bones.

Still, one thing we do have that those European philosophers didn’t have is a much better picture of nature, thanks to Charles Darwin.  According to the theory of evolution, we are descended from the apes, which means that the state of nature is radically different from how these Western philosophers imagined it.  And, thanks to all those biologists and ethologists out there who study animal behaviour in the wild, we now know a lot more about what the state of nature would have been like when humans first appeared on the scene.  

Jane Goodall spent years observing wild chimpanzees in Tanzania and Frans de Waal spent years observing captive chimpanzees in a large natural-like setting in a Dutch zoo.  According to both of them, there is no equality in ape society, there are rigid dominance hierarchies, and what’s worse there is definitely politics in ape society.  Certain individuals rule the roost, certain factions dominate the rest and mercilessly crush all dissent.   Hobbes got it wrong, it’s the state of nature where the absolute sovereign rules absolutely.  

Hobbes was right that absolute monarchy can bring about peace and harmony, but wrong about where this happens.  In chimpanzees and gorillas, relative peace and order is brought about by the unchallenged rule of the alpha, or most dominant male.  Unfortunately the alpha’s rule only goes unchallenged if he doesn’t have a bigger, stronger, challenger;  but eventually he will.  

I think that with the help of evolutionary theory and field biologists, we have gotten a pretty good idea of the state of nature.  All social mammals have dominance hierarchies, and they are based on competition for size, strength, and ability to intimidate.

Nature is not a war of all against all,  it’s a place where group members cooperate by fitting in with rigid pecking orders.  Conflict is over who gets to be first.  Once that is settled the conflict ends and peace reigns for a time.  

So what would it be like for a social contract theory to be based on a more realistic state of nature?  For one, we would want to know how we got from the rigid social hierarchies of apes to the more flexible, rule-bound, and less obvious dominance hierarchies of human beings.  

In fact, if we look at the societies which today, we believe most closely resemble stone age humans,  that would be nomadic hunting-gathering societies.  These would be small groups of between thirty and a hundred individuals.  Hunter-gatherers have the most egalitarian societies in the world.  If they have leaders, they usually only have power to persuade, and they do not in any way resemble an alpha male ape or Hobbes’s absolute monarch.

Here’s where Locke and Rousseau got their ideas about equality in the state of nature:  They both read reports about Indigenous hunter-gatherer tribes in North America.  The problem is that we no longer see hunter-gatherers as “primitive”.  We consider them as human as anyone else.  Therefore they do not represent the state of nature, they represent human nature.

There’s your simplicity:  small groups of hunter-gatherers, no economic surplus, no wealth except for knowledge and experience;   no political system - other than agreement by consensus;  no permanent leaders; nomadic, so no permanent habitation.  But that’s not the state of nature.  That was human nature for two million years until plants and animals were first domesticated ten thousand years ago.  

To recap:  through ethological studies in the field, we have a much better idea of what the state of nature for beings such as the first humans, was really like.  It was a Hobbesian Absolute monarchy with an alpha male on top, but it was decidedly not based on a covenant.  So, how did we get to a covenant?  How did we go from ape-men to egalitarian hunter-gatherers?

We can agree with John Rawls himself,  that there was  no actual  “original condition” with a “veil of ignorance”, nor were there men in powdered wigs discussing representative government.  But this original agreement could have happened long before we even developed language.  Just as no non-human animal has a syntactical language, we can safely assume that there is no syntactical language in the state of nature.  

The fact that male chimpanzees cooperate together to defend their group against predators and enemies, and that they sometimes hunt cooperatively, shows that apes are capable of making collective agreements without language.  The star example of this is the bonobo,  close cousin to chimpanzees, who diverged from chimps about two million years ago.  Female bonobos join together and collectively prevent males from dominating.  Here we have pretty strong evidence that male dominant behaviour can be suppressed by collective action, and without the need for language.

Evolutionary psychologists keep themselves very busy studying game theory and population genetics, trying to figure out how we could have become so darned altruistic, or as they like to put it:  how we developed indirect reciprocity.   Darwinian evolution works mostly by differences in reproductive ability, which appears to be incompatible with altruism, because the more you sacrifice your own interests for others the more likely you will be taken advantage of and out-competed by more selfish individuals.  Darwin had suggested that more altruistic groups could out compete groups of selfish individuals,  but, in the latter half of the twentieth Century, Biologists such as John Maynard-Smith and George C. Williams cast doubt on that hypothesis, and now it’s an ongoing controversy whether group selection can actually work.  

Be that as it may, I have problems with evolutionary psychologists equating morality with altruism.  It seems to me that morality is a kind of package deal.  It requires collective agreement to get it going in the first place, and it requires collective enforcement to keep it going.    It was Hobbes who pointed out that covenants not backed by the sword were useless.  

Once a moral system is in place, it affords mutual trust, and encourages altruism.  People who act selfishly are punished by collective judgement, even if no actual physical punishment is meted out.   No one wants to be held in low esteem by everyone else in the group.  We all want to be trusted.  Plus we expect that everyone else in the group will act in a trustworthy fashion, and we are disappointed and even angered when anyone breaks this expectation.

An alpha male keeps the peace in group of apes but he also gets whatever he wants at the expense of everyone else, which is the problem with the rule of the stronger.  The only way that we can expect anything different is if we collectively agree to constrain this kind of behaviour.  Humans have infinite ways of influencing each other’s behaviour but a big part of it is the suppression, channeling, and or  elimination of alpha dominant behaviour by a seemingly infinite number of psychological and social means.

Shame, embarrassment, guilt, and remorse, all involve both  self reference and expectations of what others would think of us.  Other techniques, such as mocking, ridiculing,  haranguing, ignoring, and shunning, occur in a group context.   Even if  these social and psychological techniques do not work, as in the case of psychopaths, we have back-ups for dealing with them, like banishment, and execution.  

Mostly our individual and collective expectations keep selfish behaviour to a minimum and encourage caring and altruism.  The moral force of our judgement can control what we allow ourselves to do and what we expect of others.  Usually this suffices, but when it doesn’t, we fall back on using Hobbes’s sword.

Unlike de Waal, or many of the evolutionary psychologists,  I don’t see altruism or reciprocity as the building blocks of morality. Instead, these are the welcome consequences of a moral system.  I see the goal of morality  in the protection and the preservation of the group.  That’s why it can be our moral duty to cause harm to others -  to punish or prevent behaviour that could potentially harm the group -  or, to sacrifice our lives in warfare - in order to protect the group. That is also the source of the dark side of morality. Moral certainty  can directly lead to terrible atrocities such as lynching, slavery, witch hunts, terrorism, and genocide.  

Apes don’t have a moral system, but they have restraints on behaviour, which are  meted out by a dominance hierarchy system, which, in its way, helps to protect and preserve the group.  Humans have this too, but where humans are different is in the deliberate imposition of a moral system that  overrides the dominance system.  

It is this overriding of a natural self-organizing system that allowed humans to exit the state of nature.  Humans, unlike animals, took control of our destiny at a specific point in time because, by agreeing to a moral system, we agreed to selectively remove the most likely potential alpha males out of the gene pool.   That means that we went from natural selection to artificial selection in one step.    

Jane Goodall once observed a female chimpanzee, over time, repeatedly killing and eating the infant offspring of another female in the group.  The killer was not ostracized or punished.  It turns out that the killer was more dominant than the mother.

We would probably agree that if the killer was a human, that killer should be punished and excluded from the group, regardless of her social  status.  In fact, as soon as people found out about the foul nature of her deed her social status would be destroyed.

Female bonobos use collective agreement to constrain male dominant behaviour, but they do not have a moral system.  They did not take that step, and they remain in the state of nature.  What female bonobos did was to selectively control male dominance but not female dominance.  Female dominance in apes is relatively benign (the above example notwithstanding) because females, lacking testosterone, don’t engage in violent conflict over who should be on top.

By collectively creating a moral system our ancestors got us out of the state of nature.  This created  an atmosphere of trust that facilitated many of the things that we value about ourselves:  our cooperativeness, our willingness to help and to sacrifice for each other and our commitment to following rules, rules that level the playing field for everyone within the group.  


  1. "All social animals have dominance hierarchies, and they are based on competition for size, strength, and ability to intimidate." make that mammals and I will agree. Wasps and bees are social "animals" and operate within a co-operative society. A monarchy as it were.
    Otherwise an interesting discusssion.

  2. Thanks for the input CM. I will change the sentence.